France: Café au lait


Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris“Café au lait?” asked the square, solid waitress in our Paris pensionne.
“No, my wife won’t be coming down this morning” replied the American, firmly, trying to convey he understood what he was being asked, when clearly he didn’t.

“Pardon, monsieur, café au lait?” repeated the puzzled waitress.
“Yes, she was the one wearing a fur coat yesterday” he uttered more confidently as the waitress looked more and more lost. “She’s not feeling well and thinks she’ll leave breakfast for today”.
The waitress looked around the breakfast room; this was a situation she was unfamiliar with. Usually she got a simple oui s’il-vous-plait or non merci. As the American pointed to another table’s café au lait and made signs indicating he would like the same she looked at him as if he was deranged and abruptly left the room, returning moments later to dump the cup and saucer down on the table with none of the friendly ceremony she normally showed.

My friend and I continued to sip our coffee and nibble our croissants, congratulating ourselves on our rudimentary French. In Paris on a week’s package holiday from London we were determined to see as much as we could, despite the November cold. Every morning we would eat our breakfast then set out to conquer the sights of Paris.

Young and fresh from New Zealand we were ignorant of many European customs. When visiting the Cathedral of Notre Dame we decided to take the tour of the belfry, giggling and imaging Quasimodo at every turn. The tour group followed the guide around, enjoying his banter and laughing at his jokes. As we left he stood outside with his hand out. Completely ignorant of tipping my friend enthusiastically shook his hand and thanked him for a wonderful tour. We couldn’t understand it when the guide glared at us and muttered something under his breath.

Walking in Les Tuileries one day we were approached by a group of camera laden Japanese. They stopped us and with much gesticulating indicated they wanted to take our photo. We tried, oh how we tried, in English and French and then loud English and French, to tell them we weren’t French but to no avail; perhaps my beret didn’t help. After lots of posing and snapping they bowed and waved us off.
The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Champs Elysees, the Seine, we loved it all. We visited the Louvre and trying to see as much as possible, came out happy but with our heads spinning. A show at Moulin Rouge was beyond our budget but we strolled the streets of Montmartre one evening and returned to visit Sacre Coeur the next day.

We stood by the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Arc de Triomphe before climbing to the top and getting an aerial view of the frenetic motoring around the Arc. We visited Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides and marvelled at the ambition of the little General, his militaristic ability and legacy to Paris.

One day we took the train out to Versailles and wandered around, bemused by the extravagance of the infamous Marie Antoinette and the total power and arrogance the French royal family had enjoyed.

We bumbled through that week, enjoying the ambiance: the people, the food, the famous sights, loving everything about Paris. We came away determined to return.

I’ve returned to Paris several times and its appeal has never dimmed. I’ve arrived at Paris by train, plane and bus but still get a thrill when alighting on her streets.
I’ve visited in autumn, winter and spring. It’s been hot, cold, wet and dry. I’ve been there with friends, my mother, my husband and children and my daughter. I’ve stayed in pensionnes, hotels and apartments. I’ve been for hours, days and weeks.

I’ve been hassled endlessly by street vendor at tourist sites, conned strolling along the Seine, my daughter was nearly robbed in McDonalds on Les Champs Elysees and my sister was mugged in the Metro but still its allure remains.
I’ve stood in crowds waiting to go into art galleries, perched on tiptoe to see the Mona Lisa, been swamped by other tourists at the Eiffel Tower but still managed to find a quiet spot to sit and watch Paris life passing by.

I always find a new park to roam in, another art work to stand and gaze at, some new food to try or another aspect of Paris life to enjoy.

I’ve always left determined to return and return I will, soon I hope.

About the Author: Clare Gleeson is a New Zealand historian, librarian and travel writer who enjoys exploring her own country as well as those further afield.

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